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Rawlsian Stability

The evanescence of justice, even of distributive justice, is not possible, nor, I think, is it desirable (but I shall not discuss this).

John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, 177


Despite great advances in recent scholarship on the political philosophy of John Rawls, Rawls’s conception of stability is not fully appreciated. This essay aims to remedy this by articulating a more complete understanding of stability and its role in Rawls’s theory of justice. I argue that even in A Theory of Justice Rawls (i) maintains that within liberal democratic constitutionalism judgments of relative stability typically adjudicate decisively among conceptions of justice and (ii) is committed to (i) more deeply than to the substantive content of justice as fairness. This essay thus emphasizes the continuity of Rawls’s thought over time and motivates the position that Rawlsian stability is as philosophically significant and distinctively Rawlsian as justice as fairness itself.

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  1. On Rawlsian stability see especially Freeman (2007) and Weithman (2010). Also noteworthy are Freeman (2003), Pogge (2007), and Hill (2013).

  2. I briefly discuss congruence below in the ‘The Limited Force of Competing Considerations’ section.

  3. Other central Rawlsian notions are also commonly misunderstood by Rawls’s critics. These include the moral powers of reasonableness and rationality and the related concepts of background justice, the basic structure of society, and social process theory. To fully understand these valuable Rawlsian contributions, one must understand their role in Rawls’s stability arguments. On the moral powers see Rawls (1993), pp. 18–20 and Rawls (2001), pp. 18–19. On the basic structure and related notions see Rawls (1971), pp. 7–11, and Rawls (2001), pp. 10–12 and 50–57; see also Freeman (2013).

  4. Rawls (1971), pp. 456–458.

  5. On the distinction between concepts and conceptions see Rawls (1971), p. 5; Rawls adapts this distinction from H. L. A. Hart (1961), pp. 155–159.

  6. See Rawls (1971), pp. 453–454, and Rawls (2001), pp. 8–9.

  7. The term ‘government-house utilitarianism’ was coined by Williams (1985), pp. 108–110, mainly as a crit‘’icism of the utilitarian theory of Sidgwick (1874).

  8. Rawls (1999), pp. 4 and 63–88.

  9. See Rawls (1971), pp. 8–9 and 241, and Rawls (2001), pp. 13 and 65–66. For recent explication, discussion, and criticism of Rawlsian ideal theory see James (2005), Mills (2005), Simmons (2010), Estlund (2011), and Stemplowska and Swift (2013). For earlier criticism of this aspect of Rawls’s political theory see Chapter 5 of Honig (1993).

  10. Rawls adopts and expands David Hume’s account of the circumstances of justice, frequently using the expressions ‘moderate scarcity’ and ‘reasonably favorable conditions’ to describe conditions relevant for the ideal theory of distributive justice. See especially Rawls (1971), pp. 126–130, and Hume (1739), pp. 536–552.

  11. These two roles for Rawlsian ideal theory correspond to what Weisberg (2007) labels ‘Galilean idealization’ and ‘minimalist idealization’, and I offer my thanks to an anonymous referee for Res Publica for directing my attention to Weisberg’s work on idealization in the sciences. It is perhaps worth noting that the distinction between idealizations which enable better understanding by human thinkers and those which distill a core phenomenon from a complicated background will not be clearly distinct in political theory as Rawls understands it, since in Rawls’s view this subject matter is partly defined by what a human thinker can comprehend. In this respect Rawlsian political philosophy differs crucially from more paradigmatically descriptive domains of inquiry, such as physics, in which these roles are more separable.

  12. For allied observations see Weithman (2010), especially pp. 57–72. See also Gaus (2013).

  13. Rawls (1971), pp. 496–504.

  14. Rawls (1971), pp. 7–10.

  15. See Rawls (1971), pp. 7–11 and 457–458, and Rawls (2001), pp. 10–12.

  16. The issue of justice between generations concerns the rate of savings required of each generation for the sake of future generations, which is distinct from the content of justice as fairness itself. See Rawls (1971), pp. 284–293, for discussion of the just savings rate.

  17. Rawls alludes to this phenomenon in Rawls (1971), pp. 328–329, but attends to the issue at length only in Rawls (1993).

  18. Rawls (2001), pp. 124–125.

  19. Rawls (2001), p. 181.

  20. I focus here on the most significant external influences which would be present even in a closed society without causal contact with other societies. There are other relevant external influences in the actual world, most notably war, immigration, and international commerce.

  21. Stability considerations suffuse Rawls’s work, but especially relevant to the present discussion are Rawls (1971), pp. 175–183 and 496–504, and Rawls (2001), pp. 119–126.

  22. Rawls (1971), pp. 455, 504.

  23. Rawls (1971), pp. 175–183, and Rawls (2001), pp. 124–126.

  24. Rawls (1971), p. 177. Rawls also characterizes a just constitution as having ‘inherent stability’; see Rawls (1971), p. 220. Weithman (2010) includes extensive discussion of the idea of inherent stability.

  25. This is most explicit at Rawls (2001), pp. 119–130. See also Williams (1998).

  26. See Rawls (1993), pp. 227–230, and Rawls (2001), pp. 47–50.

  27. Rawls (2001), pp. 126–130.

  28. See Rawls (1971), pp. 90–95, Rawls (1982), Rawls (1993), pp. 178–190, and Rawls (2001), pp. 57–61.

  29. See, for example, Sen (1987, 1992). See also Nussbaum (2000) for an alternative account of capability theory which is self-consciously designed to be more friendly to Rawls’s approach.

  30. Rawls (2001), pp. 168–170.

  31. Rawls (1975), pp. 292–294.

  32. Rawls (1971), pp. 414–419 and 429–434. For an allied understanding of moral cognitive development see Kohlberg (1973).

  33. Rawls (1971), pp. 237–238.

  34. Rawls himself indicates this at Rawls (1971), p. 453. Rawls’s framing of his arguments from reciprocity in terms of ‘strains of commitment’ experienced by citizens in a society well-ordered around an insufficiently reciprocal conception of justice is also explained by his focus on relative stability; this would otherwise be a bizarrely indirect mode of assessing a conception of justice. On strains of commitment see Rawls (1971), pp. 176–183, Rawls (1993), pp. 17–18, and Rawls (2001), pp. 103–104 and 128–130.

  35. Rawls discusses provisionally fixed points in various places, but see especially Rawls (1971), pp. 20–21.

  36. See Rawls (1993), pp. 19 and 103, and Rawls (2001), pp. 18–19.

  37. See Rawls (1971), pp. 567–577; see also Freeman (2003) and Weithman (2010).

  38. See Rawls (2001), pp. 3–5.

  39. It bears mention, however, that even this formal constraint does in fact, in Rawls’s view, contribute to a conception’s relative stability. For Rawls’s account of the formal constraints see Rawls (1971), pp. 130–136.

  40. Many thanks to an anonymous referee for Res Publica for encouraging me to make this point explicit, so as not to suggest that the justificatory force of publicity considerations is exhausted by their contribution to the stability of a conception of justice. That is not Rawls’s view, nor is it my own.

  41. See Rawls (1993), pp. 140–144.

  42. See Cohen (2008). Cohen’s failure to appreciate how deeply stability considerations figure in Rawls’s thinking is an especially important case, but it is of course not the only significant instance of this error. There is also a great distance between Rawls’s approach and that of outcome-oriented luck-egalitarianism, for example, and this distance cannot be captured without placing great emphasis on the role of stability in Rawls’s thought.

  43. For a related criticism of Cohen, see Williams (1998).

  44. Cohen (2008), pp. 2–3.

  45. See Rawls (1993), pp. 140–144. For two excellent commentaries on Rawls’s understanding of stability in Political Liberalism, see Hill (1994) and Krasnoff (1998).

  46. Rawls (1993), p. xviii.

  47. Rawls (1993), p. 227.

  48. In my view the most important criticisms of Rawls’s ideal of public reason understand and accept that Rawlsian stability is a constraint on justice but contend that removing or significantly amending this ideal conduces to stability more than retaining it. For this strategy see Garthoff (2012) and Thrasher and Vallier (forthcoming). Most criticisms of Rawls’s ideal of public reason do not answer to this description.

  49. Indeed I believe, though I will not attempt to substantiate the claim here, that stability considerations (in the domestic arena) are crucial in explaining distinctive features of Rawls’s account of international justice in The Law of Peoples. For that account see Rawls (1999).


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I would like to thank Adam Cureton, Emmalon Davis, Louis-Philippe Hodgson, Mark Michael, Paul Morrow, and especially David Reidy for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay. I also benefited greatly from excellent questions and comments from audiences at the 2012 Tennessee Value and Agency Conference at the University of Tennessee, the 2013 meeting of the Indiana Philosophical Association at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, the 2013 meeting of the Tennessee Philosophical Association at Vanderbilt University, and a symposium on John Rawls at the 2014 Pacific Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association in San Diego.

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Correspondence to Jon Garthoff.

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Garthoff, J. Rawlsian Stability. Res Publica 22, 285–299 (2016).

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  • Stability
  • Equilibrium
  • Well-ordered society
  • Ideal theory
  • Publicity
  • Reciprocity